Technology: A Real Pain in the Neck!

The way you look at your phone or other device could be causing tech neck, the term used to describe the way your neck shifts out of alignment. Learn how to hold your device and ways to reduce your risk of developing neck pain and tech neck.

What is actually happening to our neck and spine when we are constantly looking down at our mobile phones or other devices?

Dr. Luke Stringer: Great question. This is something that I consistently talk about with our patients here at Advanced Health, and I’m always educating our patients on the best way to look at your phone or your tablet or work from your work station.

But a quick bit of anatomy. Imagine you’re looking in the mirror and you’re looking at yourself, obviously you’ve got the back of your head, your skull, you’ve got your jaw and then your ear should line up right on top of that bony part of your shoulder called the AC joint. Your neck curve, if you’re within textbook normal, should be negative 42 degrees. The curve is designed to absorb the weight of our head when you’re upright, because obviously gravity applies force and then our heads can weigh anywhere from 10 to 12, 12 to 15 pounds. So, when that occurs, the weight of your head is dispersed nice and evenly into the back of the joint, it keeps pressure off the joints, the discs, the nerves. Obviously supplement that with good postural balance strength in the muscle groups, we function well.

But, as we start to use our cell phone or a tablet, or we are working from a computer, typically what happens is, essentially your head goes into flexion, which means we start to lock forwards and it could go straight forward, that’s more anterior, out in front, or flexion forward where your chin brings to your chest. Use the bowling ball analogy, if you went bowling and you carried that ball, a ball of 10 pounds, nice and really tight to your chest is 10 pounds thereabouts. But as your arm starts getting further away from your chest, although the bowling ball is the exact same weight, it’s a lot, lot heavier. It’s obviously physics and biomechanics.

What happens is if you are staring down at a tablet or a phone, or your neck’s jutted out and you’re looking forwards at a computer screen, obviously that starts to transfer the weight of your head forwards and it increases the weight of your head. So then over time, if you are in a consistent poor posture from looking down or looking forwards, essentially working or gaming, whatever it is, then obviously the weight of your head over time is going to pull your neck out of alignment. When a neck shifts out of alignment, then that’s how we start to break down on a physical and a physiological level. We can call it tech neck, military neck, there’s a bunch of names for it, but unfortunately, it’s super, super common and it’s derived from spending too much time in one posture or a poor posture looking at phones, devices, and obviously working really hard.

Can you describe the type of neck pain and other symptoms people experience from the improper use of technology?

Dr. Luke Stringer: Absolutely. They can obviously be a wide-ranging type of symptoms. As your neck goes forward, it’s going to create tension in the muscles that anchor the skull to the top two bones of your neck, we call those the suboccipitales, the little muscles that anchor the base of your skull to the top two bones of your neck. They primarily rotate the head and then flex and extend it and look up and down. So, when your spine has gone straight and your head’s shifted forwards, and that tissue’s being pulled upon, it breaks down and when it breaks down it’s weak and inflexible.

Typical symptoms we see are the top two bones in your neck create headaches, migraines, vestibular issues, vertigo, dizziness, et cetera. And then obviously as your head shifted forwards, there are muscles that anchor that mid part of your neck into the upper back that can create just the typical neck pain. It could range from stiffness, that dull achy pain which typically is more muscle based, but then that can create compensation effects. The shoulders start to round in, it increases pressure in the upper back, that can create upper back pain, shoulder pain, impingement over time where you can create postural changes. We like to call that upper cross syndrome, which means the shoulders just start to round in and get really tight. They’re kind of the muscle-based problems.

And you know, you can go anywhere from dull, stiff, achy, tight, all the way up to a sharp stabbing pain as symptomatology gets worse, your alignment gets worse, and we start increasing disc pressure, then we can run into symptoms that are more sharp in nature or numb, tingling, burning symptoms that start to refer away out of the neck into the shoulders and the hands and fingers. That can also occur. That’s usually a little bit more chronic in nature, the pain’s been there for a long time and obviously more developed. That typically is causing degeneration of the spine, degeneration occurs over time when we’re in chronic poor posture.

So yeah, obviously if you feel pain, any dysfunction, catch it early. It’s going to cost way less time, energy, and effort than it is if you leave it for three years and you can’t feel your left hand because it’s numb.

You mentioned these, but are the terms tech neck and text neck actual clinical diagnoses or are they layman’s terms for the neck pain associated with improper technology use?

Dr. Luke Stringer: Great question. It’s medical terminology, tech neck, text neck, military neck is another one, they’re terms that medical professionals use to describe the shape of your neck. So typically, tech neck, text neck, military neck, they all mean a similar thing, which means you’ve lost your curve and you have a straight neck when it should kind of look like the front of the letter D and then it can be straight up and down, or it can also have a shift forwards. They’re more kind of describing the shape of the neck.

But typically, if you have tech neck, text neck, then you are going to have pain associated with it. But we don’t necessarily use tech neck, and then it’s oh he’s got tech neck, or she’s got tech neck, and then there’s absolute pain. No, some patients can be asymptomatic for a long, long time, and then they develop other things in the physiological system. But yeah, that’s an absolute term that medical professionals use to describe the shapes of people’s necks. Absolutely. Is it the absolute terminology, or do radiologists still use it? No, he’s going to use hypolordosis or those kinds of medical terms. But yes, tech neck’s something we use in the office all the time. It’s a good way to communicate your patient on that layman basis.

If people are suffering from neck pain and still using mobile technology, what should they do on their own to help alleviate their pain and prevent it from getting worse?

Dr. Luke Stringer: Great question. If you’re in pain, it’s obviously the body’s way of telling us that something’s going on. So, reach out to a neuromusculoskeletal specialist, somebody who specializes in treating the spine, the nervous system, the chiropractor, essentially. But things you can do at home, a good rule of thumb, if you listen to this, look straight ahead, open your palm, put your little finger of your left or your right hand right in that little ridge in between the collarbones and the sternum, and then bring your chin down. As soon as it touches, that’s as much flexion, bending force that we should allow the head to do. So next time you’re on your mobile phone, your tablet, or you’re working, if you just do that check and you can’t get your fingers between your chin and your chest, then your chin is too close to your chest. And that will, over time, due to the bowling ball analogy, create that tech neck for you. So that’s something you can immediately do.

Also, easier said than done for some people, but limit your screen time. Obviously spending eight, ten hours a day on a screen is not that productive. You’re talking specifically about spinal health, right? So, make sure you’re limiting your screen time if possible. Obviously, if you’re a corporate attorney and you work 18-hour days, that’s going to be tough, but maybe you’re 16 years old and you’ve done your homework, then get outside and run around.

And then also too, just good postural exercises, posture over time creates muscle imbalances. So, a couple of really good exercises you can do, you could Google neck retractions and wall angels, and an exercise called Brugger’s that you don’t need any equipment for, you can literally do with your own body against the wall. You don’t even need to do against the wall. And you start doing those during your day when you’re working or you’re gaming or you’re playing on your phone.

There are things that you could do, just YouTube them, there’ll be some great videos. We’ve got a YouTube channel, Advanced Health Chiropractic South Loop that you could check out that does loads of good postural exercises that are essentially do level stuff. You can do them immediately at home. So, I’d start with those three things and obviously the neck pain improves, great. But again, you should really be going to see a spinal specialist to get it evaluated.

So lastly, why should someone see a chiropractor for help alleviating their neck pain?

Dr. Luke Stringer: Yeah, exactly. You know, a chiropractor’s wheelhouse is low back pain, neck pain, right? But we’re so much more than that. But for the purpose of the podcast, what do chiropractors do? We’re specialists in the treatment of the spine and the nervous system. That’s what we spend our many years at school studying. So, a chiropractor, a reputable chiropractor, is going to be able to form the detailed history, figure out when the pain occurred, how it occurred, how it’s affecting your life, putting some goals into place, perform a specific spinal exam, biomechanics, take the spine through its intended range of motion, measure it where its reduced, watch the spine move. Do we have any tissue damage that’s involved? And then shoot some x-rays to see is to know. If you’re going to build a house, you’ve got blueprints. If you’re going to treat the spine, we should be looking at some x-rays.

Those clinical findings, supplemented by every patient’s goals, will then be applied to treatment recommendations. What do we need to get it corrected? But remember chiropractic is a non-drug-based approach to healthcare. America’s the number one overprescribed nation in the world for prescription medications. They’re endemic. Chiropractors don’t prescribe. It’s not within our scope of practice. So, they are going to offer you more of a natural, homeopathic way to relieve your neck pain. Now there’s always a time and a place for that thing or that stuff per se. You’ve got referral pains, got weakness in your hands, need an MRI. You might need drugs. You might need pain intervention. You might need surgery. But again, a chiropractor worth his salt knows that. And obviously if you’re failing treatment, we’ll refer you out and take care of you in that nature.

Conservative care should be the first door we walk through before we kind of get on that allopathic medicine, which is a script. Take it, feel better, but you’re only treating the symptom, not the cause. Chiropractors are the other way around, treat the cause, not the symptom. And by doing that you’re going to take care of the symptom.

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